Steve Reich and friends, ‘Reich, Rags and Road Movies’, SXSW 2008, March 12, 2008

On more than one occassion, I was standing no fewer than 5 feet from Steve Reich, and in two instances, he was right in front of me. It was the opportunity for a fanboy moment, but I’m not exactly a fanboy. I’ve been an admirer of his work for years and only recently — i.e. with the purchase of the Phases boxed set — did I become a fan.

No, I was content to say nothing. What could I say that he probably hadn’t heard all evening? I was content to revel in one of those SXSW moments where the most unlikely confluence of events just so happens in my general vicinity.

Like sitting next to Tabuchi Hisako before Japan Nite 2000, at a time when I wasn’t really a fan of NUMBER GIRL. Or watching M join the stage with eX-Girl for a rousing rendition of "Pop Muzik". Or seeing ZZTop’s Billy Gibson wandering the crowd of Puffy Ami Yumi’s one and only SXSW performance in 2000. Or almost ringing up Elijah Wood’s purchases at Waterloo Records.

Standing next to Steve Reich at a concert of his own works? This week is prone to such situations.

Before the show and during intermission — god, that’s a strange concept to channel at a SXSW showcase — Gramophone magazine’s Anastasia Tsioulcas said the night’s concert, dubbed Reich, Rags and Road Movies, was the first classical concert hosted by the festival. I’m not sure if that’s entirely accurate — back in 2006, I missed a Zeena Parkins showcase and was subjected to Tony Conrad instead.

I’d wager it’s probably the first SXSW showcase to be conducted in a traditional concert setting, complete with a reception, intermission and audience applause as performers take the stage. Japan Traditional Nite, also in 2006, came close to a similar set-up.

Tsiouclas interviewed some of the performers before the show, and she interviewed Reich during intermission. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth interviews Reich on Thursday (today), but only conference attendees can go to that event. Tsiouclas’ interview was for the door-paying, wristband-wearing proletariat.

I couldn’t hear much of the Reich interview because the crowd noise during intermission interfered. I was about to call out to the sound guy to turn up the PA, but I didn’t get the sense anything Reich said was anything we hadn’t heard before — about his going to jazz shows while he was a student, or writing his style of music in an era when Pierre Boulez was fashionable.

The concert program concentrated on works by living composers, and while it was labeled "avant-garde/experimental" by SXSW programmers — i.e. the web site — the works themselves were largely accessible. In a festival where experimental music happens around every corner — some of it pretty unlistenable — this concert felt conservative by comparison.

Austin-based pianist Michelle Schumann described the music of Elena Kats-Chernin as a bit kooky. It was very much melodic and essentially neo-Romantic, but I think the kookiness had to be sought. Or perhaps an oversaturation of music in media has made such kookiness seem quaint. Kats-Chermin’s music was featured in a commercial in the UK, which inspired DJs to remix her pieces, Schumann mentioned during her interview.

SOLI Chamber Ensemble from San Antonio tackled Michael Torke’s Yellow Pages. A composition teacher back in college copped a real attitude against Torke, playing his work in class, then razing it for being a lot of everything and a whole lot of nothing at the same time. This teacher is the same one who eventually turn me off to composition.

At the same time, I can’t say I’ve shaken that perception of Torke. Yellow Pages seemed frothy even compared to Kats-Chermin’s pieces, which still had a gravity even when they were playful. Yellow Pages was just a lot of dessert. The SOLI, nonetheless, navigated the rhythms of the piece wonderfully.

Torke, though, is no John Adams. Schumann and SOLI’s Ertan Torgul performed the last movement of Adams’ Road Movies. The interplay between Schumann’s piano and Torgul’s violin had an intricacy that felt painstakingly detailed and wholly organic at the same time. Yellow Pages seemed to just begin and end. Road Movies, on the other hand, ebbed and flowed. Schumann and Torgul gave a thrilling reading.

The most challenging work on the program was Elliott Carter’s Gra, a solo clarinet piece with a lot of leaps and whelps, but the most remarkable part was the use of a harmonic. At first I thought clarinetist Stephanie Key had just hit the note a bit too softly, since she was essentially harmonizing with herself. When the note popped up two more times in later measures, Key’s skill became immediately apparent.

She would later tackle Reich’s New York Counterpoint, a piece for clarinet and tape. I’ve only ever heard this piece on recording, which gives you a reading of the score but not of a performance. Why have a soloist play with a tape of overdubbed parts anyway? Why not have a whole bunch of clarinets play the piece?

New York Counterpoint live is not New York Counterpoint on recording. The call-and-response aspect of the piece doesn’t get translated on the recording. In concert, the performer plays a line that gets taken by the tape, and eventually both tape and player become one. It’s a terrific effect and one that can only be experienced live.

So too with C.E. Whalen’s performance of Electric Counterpoint, originally written for Pat Metheny. Whalen played against Metheny’s original overdubs, but Whalen’s playing style is different from Metheny, and the combination gave the piece a distinctive hue. For both counterpoint pieces, it was nice to see finally how the solo parts relate to the dubbed parts.

The evening concluded with So Percussion performing Music for a Piece of Wood, Nagoya Marimbas, the first movement of Drumming and Clapping Music. I had to bust out the earplugs for Music for a Piece of Wood because the timbe of the wood was a bit too piercing. Reich’s percussion pieces are incredible, consisting of intricate interlocking patterns almost reminiscent of the modern Indonesian theater form called kecak.

The So percussionists gave an energetic, tight performance. Jason Treuting told the audience they were freaking out over the fact they would be performing in front of Reich. Despite that pressure, So Percussion delivered.

I think I may as well stay home for the rest of the festival. I’m not sure how SXSW can top a concert of Steve Reich works with the composer in attendance.